Thursday, October 20, 2016

Three Sisters – dreams and wanderlust dented by Belfast blues (Lyric until 12 Nov) #belfest

Each of the eponymous Three Sisters is unhappy with their lot. Moved back to Northern Ireland after the death of their mother, the subsequent passing of their father has left these army children alone in a suburban house along with their nerdy but compulsive brother Andy. Over three two and a half hours we witness their ambitions being bashed by life’s cruel twists and turns, and hurt, most often, by their own action and inaction. Can they break through and find a better way?

Writer Lucy Caldwell has taken Helen Rappaport’s literal translation of Anton Chekhov’s drama and shifted it away from a Russian town in 1900, retained and adapted many of the original character names, and added local colour – like the starling murmuration over the Albert Bridge – to anchor the piece in 1990s East Belfast.

At the start of the play the youngest sibling Erin has just turned eighteen. Full of dreams and wanderlust, Amy Blair dances around the stage with her cape flowing behind as her idealistic character imagines changing her circumstances and changing the world. While aptly described in the opening act with the best (and only) use of ‘flibbertigibbet’ on stage in Belfast this year, as the years roll on the harsh realities of life, and eventually love, wear her down. [Update - I was wrong: you can hear ‘flibbertigibbet’ on both stages of the Lyric during the overlap of Bag For Life's run and the last week of Three Sisters!]

Marianne (Christine Clare) has a well developed jaded attitude and post-goth look. Her longing for a meaningful bond is frustrated by her cocky DJ boyfriend (Patrick McBrearty) and her complicated dalliance with her father’s exotic colleague Alexander Vershinin (Tim Treloar). By the time we’ve reached 1998, if the rioting on the East Belfast streets doesn’t kill someone, her mood might instead.

Eldest sister Orla (Julie Maxwell) is the substitute matriarch and source of common sense and practical advice. She yearns to escape the gravitational pull of her siblings that keeps her grounded in Belfast. With the fewest lines of the three sisters she still manages to use her scenes to construct a well rounded character.
“People can start again”

These tortured lives are also a parable representing the challenge Northern Ireland faced as it strove to break away from conflict and find new ways to foster peace. The inclusion of British soldiers (Julian Moore-Cook, Lewis Mackinnon, Matthew Forsythe and Gerard Jordan) – decent as well as downright insulting – are a reminder of the difficult interfaces that society needed to bridge, and a means of prompting the local audience to remember that other places around the world have also experienced trouble. Though why soldiers from Palace Barracks would come to a house in East Belfast, even that of a dead military man’s family, defies Troubles’ logic.

Siu Jing (Shin-Fei Chen) acts as an everyman character, addressing the audience during the performance as well as playing the love interest of the brother (Aidan O’Neill). She’s the only outsider, unconnected with the Troubles, and qualified to comment dispassionately on the oscillating security situation in the neighbourhood. With turmoil out on the streets, Siu Jing’s developing confidence and bluntness riles the householders and stirs up turmoil in the already tense family tableau. But while a feisty lass from the lower end of the Newtownards Road might be a believable outsider in this household, it’s hard to understand how Siu Jing keeps such a hold over the household.

Up to twelve of the enormous cast litter the stage at any one time, spread out across the sparse set which looks like a giant marquee frame without the awning. The plain open plan household is animated with Alex Lowde’s bold costumes, including the best and most recognisable cartoon wig that I’ve ever seen. There’s a casual musicality to the performers (special mentions for Christine Clare and Patrick McBrearty as well as Lewis MacKinnon’s sadly truncated rendition of Wonderwall) that hints at significant talent. The singing and strumming offer welcome breaks in the acres of words that cover the play’s canvass.

The scene changes are like something out of a touring West End show you’d be more likely to see on the stage of the Grand Opera House. Director Selina Cartmell and movement director Dylan Quinn have created exquisitely choreographed routines that are a joy to watch in the gaps between acts.

Over the course of the play there are a few moments that stretch the suspension of disbelief to its limit. Niall Cusack oddly has to (otherwise expertly) deliver a long and rambling monologue in an otherwise empty room to explain why eccentric Uncle Beattie has gone back on the sauce. In a regular play the petrol bombing of a house might be the pivotal crisis; in this super-sized drama, it’s merely an excuse to engineer another collision of lovers.

Humour is used sparingly and often inappropriately, leaving the audience uncertain whether to laugh at a crude outburst or feel guilty for guffawing at a politically incorrect gag. It never swerves into the kind of dark satire that Abbie Spallen so brilliantly stirred up in Lally The Scut. A stray mention of Nelson Mandela undermines the subtlety of the rest of the dialogue and feels more like a piece of peace process bingo than a natural utterance.

A couple of practical points - there’ll be big queues for the toilets at the interval – rush down to them or you’ll be bringing your drink into the auditorium for the second half. And if you’re planning to use public transport to get home, don’t expect to be leaving the Lyric much before 10.40pm.

While embedded in the peace process timeline, this isn’t just another piece of Troubles theatre. The fact that the audience will recognise themselves in the characters’ journeys adds to the pain of Lucy Caldwell’s adaptation. While two of the three sisters have mascara running down their cheeks by the end, the lack of rawness in the writing and dialogue keeps the audience sufficiently detached to prevent their empathy rising to a level that would trigger tears in their eyes.

Three Sisters is an ambitious piece of writing rewarded with an equally ambitious production that would not look out of place on a Dublin or London stage. While the emotional aloofness undermines or limits the potential power of the play, it’s still worth catching this at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival or afterwards before the run ends on 12 November.

I attended an early preview of the show and went back to the final matinee to see what had changed. Some aspects may change later in the run. Indeed, some scenes had been shortened and a good twenty or so minutes had been chopped off the running time. While there was now one scene that captured the claustrophobia that is so crucial to Chekhov's original, some other magical moments had lost their lustre. It's interesting to see how a play changes over a long duration run.

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